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The Throughput of Learning

link to original storyFeb 26, 2017
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Similarly, modern learning is not a process for maximizing the throughput of insights, but for maximizing the throughput of learning process improvements. The best assumptions to invalidate in our quest for learning are assumptions about learning itself. This is why meditation retreats, globe-trotting, and having kids will always be net productivity gains, broadly defined: even a slight improvement in the machinery of learning (via a shift in perspective, for example) will pay dividends over time far greater than a mere few months of lost labor.
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But here we’re presented with a dilemma: how does one learn about one’s own assumptions about learning? Since you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s difficult to learn anything about it. Our assumptions about learning seem to be permanently out of reach.


Another historical example gives us a possible clue: the history of inventory turnover.


Inventory turnover is a measure of the number of times inventory is sold or used in a time period. In the 1970s, U.S. manufacturing firms had an average turnover of 3.7 (in other words, they sold their full stock of inventory, on average, 3.7 times per year). The Japanese average was only a little higher, at 5.5. By the 1980’s, this had accelerated dramatically to nearly 20, with the highest-performing Western firms achieving turnover of between 30 and 80. Soon after, Japanese firms achieved an astounding three-digit inventory turnover, selling their stock 100 or more times per year. No one thought it could go any higher.
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This shift, a linear change in speed that inverted the whole logic of business, presented us with some powerful, if challenging, questions: if we’re able to charge the customer before paying for the supplies, why should we be limited by our initial investment or working capital? Why not do the selling before production, so we know exactly what to make, and how much? What other stages of production don’t have to happen in sequence? We’re still working out the implications to this day: Kickstarter campaigns sell a vision to deliver on later; plentiful credit and falling barriers to entry make borrowing from the future easier than ever; the field of Lean UX provides us a ready-made toolkit of methods for validating before producing.
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This example illustrates one way blindspots can be revealed: by accelerating a system so much that its rules break, forcing everyone to confront its underlying assumptions. The shift to negative inventory turnover wasn’t technically or logistically difficult, but it required the reassessment of a deeply-held assumption: that the stages of production have to happen in a particular order.
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